It starts slowly. Back pain sends you to your doctor. The pain is so bad it keeps you up at night. You've missed work, and you can't keep up at family events.

So your doctor prescribes OxyContin, typically used for mild to severe pain relief. You've heard on the news how addictive OxyContin can be, and you hesitate to fill the prescription.

You're right to worry. In 2010, more than 12 million people in the United States said they had used prescription painkillers without a prescription or medical reason, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The same study found that 2 million of those users had used for the first time within the past year.

In Tennessee for example, prescription painkillers called opioids accounted for more drug overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined, researchers report in the March 2014 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Read on to learn what makes prescription drugs like OxyContin so addictive, and how you can avoid falling into their trap.

How OxyContin Works

OxyContin works by binding to receptors in the brain, spine, and other organs in the body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In doing so, the drug lessens the amount of pain the user feels.

It also affects the award center of the brainx hence the danger. OxyContin can make people feel euphoric. And naturally, they enjoy the feeling. So, they want more of it -- even when they're not in pain.

Drugs in the opioid family include oxycodone, morphine, hydrocodone, codine, and methadone.

Prescription painkillers such as OxyContin belong to a family of drugs called opioids.

But those are just the legal drugs. Illicit opioids include heroin and opium, derived from poppy plants.

However, the average adult walking down the street likely feels more comfortable taking a prescription drug than shooting heroin. He also trusts what his doctor has prescribed.

What happens, though, when the prescription expires, but the craving for that euphoric feeling remains?

Who's At Risk

Most prescription drug overdoses don't happen because someone robbed a pharmacy.

They happen because a patient had a prescription for painkillers, but then sold the pills individually or gave them away to family and friends. According to the CDC, more than three out of every four people who misuse painkillers were taking pills prescribed to someone else.

Those most at risk for prescription painkiller abuse include those who suffer from mental illness, have a history of substance abuse, are on medicade, live in rural areas, take high daily doses of pain killers, and those that have multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors.

However, prescription painkillers are expensive, which leads many people to transition to significantly cheaper heroin, says the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

What You Can Do

Awareness is a major part of the battle. You're reading this article, so you've already taken step one to educate yourself.

If you're currently taking prescription painkillers, have regular check-ins with yourself. Ask yourself:

  • Is your prescription running out early?
  • Are you using multiple doctors to fill your prescriptions?
  • Do you borrow pain medications from family members or friends?
  • Are you compelled to go to the Emergency Room to get more medication until your next doctors appointment?

These are red flags. If you see them in yourself, talk with your doctor, therapist, or someone you trust immediately.

And if you're in pain but want to avoid prescription painkillers altogether, try altering your diet to include natural painkillers, such as ginger and curcumin. If your range of motion allows for it, enroll in a yoga class or tai chi.

Be open with the people you trust. The more you talk about prescription drug abuse with your loved ones, the more potential you have to prevent it.

Talk to A Doctor